ADAMWEINBERG: You could think of this 1968 sculpture by Robert Smithson as a kind of landscape. It’s comprised of a sleek metal box filled to the brim with large rocks taken from a site in New Jersey. On the wall nearby, you’ll see a written text by Smithson, explaining exactly where he found the rocks.
For centuries, artists have depicted landscapes. But Smithson reinvents the tradition by physically putting the land back into the landscape. And in a related gesture, he brings the outside world into the art museum. Smithson was acutely aware of how a specific environment conditions our perception of an object—if we encountered this pile of rocks sitting by the side of the highway, we would almost surely regard them differently.
Smithson was born and raised in New Jersey. He called this work a “non-site” work. And in more ways than one, the work is noteworthy as much for what is not there, as for what is. For one thing, Smithson is having some fun with the stereotypical perception of New Jersey as a cultural backwater, especially compared to New York—the center of the art world. New Jersey is a “non-site” in the sense that it is perceived as a marginal, unimportant place. In another sense, the piece is a “non-site” because it’s very physicality reminds us of the place we are not—the place from which the rock was taken.